The University of Rochester (U of R) is paying $9.4 million to settle a high-profile sexual harassment lawsuit that divided an esteemed department, landed two of the plaintiffs on the cover of Time magazine, and was closely watched by other institutions of higher education. The plaintiffs announced the settlement today as they issued a joint statement with the university.
The lawsuit, filed in December 2017 by nine now-former professors and students in U of R’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, alleged that the university retaliated against and defamed them after they alleged sexual harassment by linguist Florian Jaeger. Three plaintiffs also alleged that Jaeger created a sexually hostile environment. (The university has never found Jaeger guilty of sexual harassment.)
The settlement comes 7 months after the federal judge in the case upheld the legal validity, in whole or in part, of 16 of the plaintiffs’ 17 claims in the lawsuit, clearing the way for a court battle where they would have had to prove the claims were factually accurate. The university had moved to dismiss all the claims.
“We consider it a major victory for all of the faculty and students who were harassed,” says plaintiff and developmental neuroscientist Jessica Cantlon of Carnegie Mellon University. “It’s a significant settlement. I think it’s going to have a really powerful impact on how seriously universities take women who come forward with complaints of sexual harassment. This is something that universities will notice.”
The plaintiffs’ chief lawyer, Ann Olivarius of McAllister Olivarius, said: “It is very unusual for senior professors to band together with junior faculty and students, as happened in this case, to try to protect students from harassment. … We commend UR for improving its policies and turning the page on this very long struggle.”
In a joint statement issued by the university and the plaintiffs today, U of R thanked the plaintiffs “for bringing forward their concerns about sexual harassment” and added: "The impact of the plaintiffs’ efforts has resulted in real improvement to the University processes. … Even the laws of New York have been positively impacted by the plaintiffs’ efforts.” (In August 2019, driven in part by the U of R case, New York state enacted sweeping changes to its sexual harassment laws.)
“We are pleased to have achieved a successful mediated resolution to this matter,” the university said in a separate statement. “The willingness of our insurance carrier to pay the entire settlement amount was a factor in our decision. No party to the settlement admitted liability or fault. Since the claims were filed, the University has taken a number of important steps, including establishing an Office of Equity and Inclusion, strengthening policies, clarifying processes, and expanding training and resources to prevent and address sexual misconduct.”
Jaeger’s attorney, Steven Modica of the Modica Law Firm, said in a statement that Jaeger “is very disappointed” that the plaintiffs’ claims won’t be challenged in court. “He believes sincerely that, had these claims been tested, the Court would have reached the same conclusion that Mary Jo White and her team reached after their extensive and independent investigation, that is: ‘In sum, we find that the evidence does not support a conclusion that any Complainant or other UR student or employee has been subjected to unlawful sexual harassment as a result of Jaeger’s conduct.’”
The university in 2017 hired the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton to conduct an investigation led by partner Mary Jo White for which it paid $4.5 million. White’s report concluded “We … do not believe that any potential claimant or plaintiff would be able to sustain a legal claim for sexual harassment in violation of [federal law].”
Asked what drove the large cash settlement, Cantlon said: “A lot of people who were affected by this were pushed out of jobs and lives that they loved and had to start over. That was the basis of our argument—the scope and scale of the impact that the sexual harassment and retaliation had on the plaintiffs.”
The plaintiffs, who are male and female and whose ages span decades, plan to offer a portion of the settlement money to some 20 women whose careers, they say, were hurt by a hostile environment to women in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.
The settlement marks the end of a tumultuous episode that also drove U of R’s then-president, Joel Seligman, from office. It is not the largest paid by a university since the rise of the #MeToo movement in 2017. In August 2019 Dartmouth College paid $14.4 million to nine women who said they were raped, sexually assaulted, or harassed by three professors in its Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.